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Incense Tree: Collected Poems by Louise Ho

The recent appointment of Carol Ann Duffy as the new UK Poet Laureate made me wonder whether Hong Kong might introduce a similar position. While people in the city do not generally care much for English contemporary poetry, let alone Hong Kong poetry, vigorous attempts by Hong Kong (and Hong Kong-based) poets, local publishers and some devoted academics to the medium means that one can now speak of “Hong Kong poetry” without engaging in hyperbole.

Incense Tree: Collected Poems by Louise Ho
Incense Tree: Collected Poems, Louise Ho (Hong Kong University Press, March 2009)

If there were to be a “Hong Kong English Poet Laureate”, Hong Kong-born and bred Louise Ho would surely be on any short-list of candidates. But Ho perhaps already is “The Citizens’ Poet”: her political and social poems are often forceful and unflinching criticisms of the state of affairs much in line with popular sentiments. Her famous poems about the Hong Kong riots of the 1960s, the Tiananmen Square incident (notably the widely anthologized “Remembering 4th June, 1989”) and the 1997 Handover, all published in previous collections and are now collected in Incense Tree, show where her sympathies lie. Ho sits comfortably in the ranks of those poets whose stature is in no small part due to their taking on and fulfilling a social responsibility.

In her new poems, one sees this warrior-like mode of Ho continue unabated. One poem describes the march protesting Article 23 Bill (an anti-subversion law) on 1 July 2003:


The young, the old, with friends, family or alone;
The poor, the rich, professionals, workers, others,
They walked:
Each person giving the other space,
United in one purpose,
Five hundred thousand marchers
Moved on without incident,
Unhurried, unruffled, undeterred.
— from “Marching”


In other poems, Ho’s political criticisms are more satirical and biting:


Who is to say
This beast of a thousand faces
Would not stretch the next ten
To sixty or more
Or reduce forty
To a mere twenty
Or less?
— from “Forty Years to Go”


The identity of this unnamed shape-shifting monster is not difficult to guess at. That this mathematical question is asked reveals desire for an absolute answer to the baggage of history as well as anxiety about what lies ahead.

In “Seltonics”, Ho humorously describes the history of Hong Kong political leadership since 1997. The poet writes about “the first headman” who was “made trot” by “Up North” and the “new man” who “wasn’t all that hot”. However, despite the incapability of “the first headman’” and the “new man”, the city manages: “Oh no oh no we have not lost the plot.” ‘Plot’ is a meaning-loaded word, but no matter for it is the “we”, the people, who have firm grasp of the plot. Or have we? There are three negatives in this line. Here, Ho is a mouthpiece for her people. She speaks of their worries, their woes. In neither poem—intimate poems designed for people who know Hong Kong—are names necessary. Ho knows her readers can figure out what and whom she is referring to.

But it’s not necessary to be au courant with recent Hong Kong history to appreciate Ho’s take on her city. Here Ho criticizes the English transliteration of Hong Kong:


Heung not Hong
Gong not Kong;
In any case
Transliteration into English sounds
Of monosyllabic tonal Chinese
Is alchemy in reverse
Changing all that is gold
Into dross, loss and mockery.
— from “Incense Tree”


“I Sing of a Man” presents another example of something pretty turning dreadful. Ho writes about an orchid farmer who buries his beautiful and delicate orchids alive to avoid them being brutally crushed during the clearing of Diamond Hill. Flowers become corpses and a minor citizen whose story is excluded in official history, finds himself a hero in poetry. But the poem also suggests one kind of violence (introduced by the officials) causing another (the farmer is turned into an orchid-murderer). The poem ends: “As always/ The earth consoles with closure”: an urban poem with a hint of the pastoral, highlighting the complicated relationship between city people and nature.

Due to their deceptively simple language or fluid narrative perspectives, Louise Ho’s poems can generate different interpretations and reflections. And that this year is the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 June 4th incident means that her works, especially her political poems, are more relevant and important than ever. “Remembering 4th June, 1989” reminds us not to forget history and to remember how “Before we went our separate ways again,/ We thought as one,/ We spoke as one, [...] We have at last/ Become ourselves.” Ho’s new poems also inspire us to pay attention to the socio-politics of Hong Kong. In a sea of poets who obsessively write about themselves in confessional mode, we should be happy to have Louise Ho as our own historian-poet.


Reviewer’s note: This review focuses on the new poems in Incense Tree: Collected Poems. The book also includes poems from Louise Ho’s previous collections, Sheung Shui Pastoral (1977), Local Habitation (1994) and New Ends, Old Beginnings (1997)


Tammy Ho Lai-ming is editor of the two anthologies Love and Lust and Hong Kong U Writing as well as founding co-editor of the Hong Kong-based Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.